Pawlenty, Republican leaders circle the wagons after gas tax defeat

Gas prices
Gov. Pawlenty and Republican legislative leaders used this graphic at a news conference Tuesday to illustrate the gas tax increase Minnesota drivers will see beginning in April.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Gov. Pawlenty and Republican leaders in both the House and Senate circled the wagons -- just one day after suffering a stinging defeat on the transportation bill.

Eight Republicans -- six in the House and two in the Senate -- crossed party lines and voted to override the governor's veto. Pawlenty decided to focus less on the Republican defectors and more on the Democrats who control both chambers.

"Yesterday, the DFL caucuses took a bucket of tax increases and dumped it on the heads of Minnesotans," Pawlenty said.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R- Marshall, announced Tuesday that the six Republicans who voted to override the governor's veto would lose their leadership positions.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Pawlenty appeared at a news conference with House Minority Leader Marty Seifert and Senate Minority Leader Dave Senjem. To the side of the podium was a picture of gas prices going up eight and a half cents under DFL leadership.

The transportation bill increases the gas tax a nickel a gallon, and also includes a three and a half cent-per-gallon gas surcharge to pay off road construction debt.

The bill also increases the metro sales tax a quarter of a percent to pay for transit projects, and increases license tab fees on new cars.

It was the first time the Legislature has overridden a veto by Gov. Pawlenty. But the governor focused less on the historical significance of the override and more on the November election.

"I don't think I had a bad day yesterday. I think it was the taxpayers of Minnesota who had a bad day," said Pawlenty. "I think, as the taxpayers of Minnesota get a full handle on what the DFL caucuses are doing to them, it's the DFL that's going to have a bad day."

"I don't think I had a bad day yesterday. I think it was the taxpayers of Minnesota who had a bad day."

DFL House Majority Leader Tony Sertich said he was disappointed to see Pawlenty take a harsh tone. He said he remained optimistic that Democrats can work with the governor for the rest of the session.

"This is the compromise bill. It brought all of the stakeholders together. It brought a bipartisan support in the Legislature. It brought the business community along," said Sertich. "The governor himself said he was unengaged on this issue, so we took the leadership in making sure we solved the problem here."

But the governor was in no mood to make nice. He warned lawmakers that he would not support any tax increases to balance the budget, and said lawmakers should buckle up for a bumpy ride.

The governor made his comments after being out of Minnesota since Friday. He was in Washington DC, attending the National Governors Association's winter meetings.

Despite being away, Pawlenty said he was still lobbying the wavering Republicans and spoke to both caucuses before he left.

The six House Republicans who decided to vote for the bill face discipline from GOP leaders. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert removed the six Republicans from their leadership positions.

"I hope it would show that we want positive leadership from Republicans. These are leadership positions where we expect other Republicans to follow along," Seifert said. "How can we have members following my leadership follow their leadership in these committees, when they are not following my leadership on the floor?"

Seifert said he does not intend to recruit candidates to challenge the six Republicans, but he said it was unlikely the caucus would back them financially in this fall's election.

Seifert also said that five of the six Republicans voluntarily gave up their slots. But Republican Ron Erhardt of Edina said that's not the case.

"I told him that I was not voluntarily resigning, and to get rid of me he was going to have to fire me," said Erhardt, "and that it would do him more good with the caucus if he took the action rather than me."

Erhardt said he expected to lose his party's endorsement, but intends to run either in a primary or as an independent.

Republican Kathy Tingelstad of Andover said she would continue to seek re-election, whether or not she has the GOP endorsement.

Republican Bud Heidgerken of Freeport was the other lawmaker who didn't leave his House leadership position willingly. He said his vote could cost him re-election but he said it was the right thing to do.

Heidgerken said he doesn't understand why he's being disciplined for voting for the best interests of his district.

"I always feel badly when people try to chastise me for doing right, until they prove to me that I've done wrong," said Heidgerken. "I will take the repercussions if I've done wrong. I will step down if I've done wrong -- but I have not done wrong. I have done right by my people."

The dispute between the governor and lawmakers could get worse in the coming weeks. That's because an updated budget forecast is coming out on Thursday, and the state budget deficit is expected to be much worse than the $373 million deficit projected in November.

Pawlenty says he will veto any tax increase lawmakers send him to try to balance the budget.

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